Voyage of the Damned is one of those great premises that unfortunately make for increasingly solid and uninvolving viewing, feeling like a disaster movie without the disaster. Certainly the shameful true story it fictionalises inspires plenty of dread, charting the stalled progress of a liner full of Jews that Hitler allowed out of pre-war Germany secure in the knowledge that no country in the free world was willing to take them. It certainly starts off promisingly enough as it's setting up the plot and explaining the insidious Nazi propaganda motives behind it. As the voyage progresses and it becomes clear that the passengers will not be allowed to disembark in South America it covers most of the political machinations on both sides, but rarely in a particularly compelling way. Thanks to Steve Shagan and David Butler's flat Oscar-nominated script, none of the vignettes or characters are particularly interesting, while Stuart Rosenberg's direction is more solid than inspired. The intentions are certainly noble enough, but you get the feeling that no-one knew quite how to dramatise them and just fell back on clichés and stereotypes, at times feeling like they saw Ship of Fools a few too many times. Voyage of the Damned has a better story to tell only to get increasingly becalmed after a good start.
There's no doubting this particular ship of fools is well cast - Julie Harris, Wendy Hiller, Helmut Griem, Max Von Sydow and Malcolm McDowell, Faye Dunaway and Oskar Werner, looking like a slightly sozzled Chinese chipmunk, among the ill-fated passengers and crew, James Mason, Jose Ferrer, Ben Gazzara, Orson Welles (constantly accompanied by soft porn star Laura Gemser) and Katherine Ross' well-connected hooker among those horse-trading for lives on dry land, while others, like Fernando Rey, Denholm Elliott and Leonard Rossiter flit through in bit parts. Some of the casting is astute - blacklist victims Sam Wannamaker and Lee Grant - but far too few of them really have anything to do in the film beyond the odd line here and there, and even fewer had anything interesting to do.
For the most part it puts stars or familiar faces in what are really just bit-parts and walk-ons in a single scene - some are even relegated to being no more than glorified extras sitting around the captain's table or on the lower decks. It's the kind of film where one of the meatiest roles ends up with one of the least known actors in the cast, Victor Spinetti, rather than any of the headliners. Far too many of the cast just seem like ballast on an overloaded vessel with a script that can't find time to develop most of them. They're not characters, but glorified extras. In most cases the only thing that makes most of them register is the familiar face - and then only because you wonder why they signed up for a non-existent part. And after a while you find yourself asking what do performers like Julie Harris, Maria Schell, Nehemiah Persoff or Janet Suzman actually have to do in the film? How many of the cast actually have characters with more than one or two scenes, let alone ones that actually develop over the course of the film? How many of them even need to be in the film? Even a soap opera needs to involve you with its cast of characters. Some all-star cast films work because even if the characters aren't there, their vignettes add to the film or work on their own terms, but that rarely happens here. The only ones who really get to make much of an impact are those who are involved in the plot mechanics - you don't care for them, but at least they're driving the story forward.
A few of them do get a chance to make a slight impression: Paul Koslo and Jonathan Pryce (the latter making his debut) do enough with fairly little to make you think that maybe the cheaper members of the cast got some of the better stuff simply because they were paid by the week instead of by the day. Of course, it's just possible that some of the lack of development is due to the fact that this was one of those incredible shrinking epics so common in the 60s and 70s when the era of roadshow presentation stopped paying off big and just led many a would-be blockbuster to a slow and lingering box-office death of a thousand cuts. Originally intended as a 180-minute reserved seat presentation, cut down to 158 minutes for Europe and shrinking further to 134 by the time it got to US screens, it's a fair bet some of the cast's subplots got thrown overboard, though it's probable that there were still plenty who were wallflowers in that three-hour version. Yet the star-studded casting can't hide the weaknesses in the writing but rather just draws attention to it. You appreciate the sentiments, but the film never does its subject justice.
Network's UK PAL DVD offers the two-and-a-half version with the theatrical trailer and stills gallery the only extras (there was a ten-minute behind the scenes documentary made at the time to promote the film, but, unsurprisingly considering the film's ox-office failure, neither that nor any deleted scenes have been included).